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Chittenden County Towns Contemplate Consolidating Emergency Dispatch Services

(left to right) Chief Amy Akerlind, Colchester Rescue, Chief Steven Locke, Burlington Fire Department, Aaron Frank, Deputy Town Manager in Colchester, and South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple, present the plan for a consolidated dispatch center.
Liam Elder-Connors
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VPR
Left-right: Chief Amy Akerlind, Colchester Rescue; Chief Steven Locke, Burlington Fire Department; Aaron Frank, Colchester deputy town manager; and South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple presented the plan Monday for a consolidated dispatch center.

Towns in Chittenden County are hoping to improve how fast emergency services respond to calls by pooling resources for dispatching those services. 

An item on seven town meeting ballots would set the stage for the creation of one consolidated center to handle 911 calls from member towns.
Right now when you call 911, it goes a call center where an operator takes your information and then transfers you to a local dispatcher. It's that local dispatcher who then gets emergency responders out to you.

Aaron Frank, deputy town manager in Colchester, said the plan being considered by seven towns in Chittenden County aims to consolidate that process.

“The purpose of the authority is to provide 911 and dispatch services for police, fire and rescue from a single location in order to reduce response times and improve the cross-community emergency assistance,” he said.

The towns considering this plan are Colchester, Burlington, Milton, Shelburne, Williston, South Burlington and Winooski.

"The purpose of the authority is to provide 911 and dispatch services for police, fire and rescue from a single location in order to reduce response times and improve the cross-community emergency assistance." — Aaron Frank, Colchester deputy town manager

The Town Meeting Day vote would not immediately create this regional dispatch center; rather it allow towns to establish a union municipal district, which is a way for towns to join together to provide a service.

“We're asking for voter approval to approve a regional board with the authority to further develop the organization for future approval by city councils and select boards before services would be provided,” Frank said.

At least three towns have to pass the ballot item to create the municipal union, which would be called the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority. Then the authority would begin developing how the center would operate.

But dispatchers who work in the towns have raised concerns about the proposed consolidation and are urging residents to vote down the plan.

A press release from dispatchers stated that "[a]pproximately 52 out of 60 dispatchers" in the seven towns are opposed to the plan.

A yard sign advises passersby to "Vote No on Question 2: Protect Your Public Safety. No To Regional Dispatch"
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
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VPR
Dispatchers from the seven towns voting are urging residents to vote against forming a regional dispatch center. They cite a lack of operational details about the center as a reason why they don’t support the plan.

“We have a lot of concerns,” said Kathryn Clark, a dispatcher in Burlington and the union steward for the union that represents the city's dispatchers.

The union is concerned about maintaining jobs but the chief concern is that the time savings being touted won't be as much as proponents say.

"We're also worried about the fact that we haven't been shown any sort of operational plan,” Clark said. “We don't know how this center is going to look, and once it's voted it's going to go to the entity of the regional center so we now lose control.”

Clark said dispatchers are not opposed to the idea of a regional dispatch center, but in this case, she feels like things are moving too fast.

“It's a lot of unknowns, and it's scary to me,” Clark said. “I heard someone make the analogy: the city seems to be asking for the citizens to approve a business loan, without having a business plan.”

"It's a lot of unknowns, and it's scary to me. I heard someone make the analogy: the city seems to be asking for the citizens to approve a business loan, without having a business plan." — Kathryn Clark, Burlington dispatcher and union steward

But Burlington Fire Chief Steven Locke said dispatchers will be included in figuring out the details of the new center.

“The next steps will be those operational components. ... Before a dispatcher ever pushes a button to transmit a call for service, there's a lot of work to do from where we are today to that point," Locke said.

For this plan to work, Locke said the dispatchers need to be involved.

“We need them all to be successful; we really need them all,” Locke said.

Frank said they want to hear from dispatchers, but they need to create the union municipal district first.

“We're interested in receiving input when we're a board that can receive that input,” Frank said. “Right now, we're just some towns talking together about doing something together.”

City councils and select boards would still have to vote a second time before actually putting money and staff into the regional dispatch center.

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